When the game development firm DR Studios’ Clive Robert and his colleagues worked for struggled to get staff with the right skills, they decided something needed to be done. They launched Train2Game, a blended learning college that offers courses to qualify games designers, games developers or games artists and animators. Henry Tucker spoke to Clive about the college.

The skill shortage in the IT industry is something that has been talked about at length. However, one of the biggest issues that Clive noticed when employing graduates was that they lacked business skills and commercial acumen. This ranged from the inability to get into work on time to not recognising that the amount of time a person spends on one task has a value or being able to meet deadlines.

‘Developers are incredibly conscious of how much time and money they invest into a project and the difference between profit and loss on a particular title has become a real issue,’ Clive says.

Universal skills

When it comes to skills though, the situation is more complicated. Each studio will have its own proprietary software tools so it’s not possible for students to know how to use all of them before they start. What they need, Clive says, and what the universities, colleges and FEs aren’t teaching them, are universal skills.

Games are made up of thousands of different parts. Audio files, image files, video files, sections of code and so on are all managed centrally so that everyone who needs them can access them. However, Clive says, this way of working, called source control, isn’t always taught.

‘The idea is to document your code in a way that the rest of the team understands and can work on,’ Clive explains. ‘It’s not so much the raw skill set of understanding C++ at a basic level, it’s the understanding of the way that you implement that codebase and content as part of a team and in a commercial environment.’

Developing the course

While the course came out of the experiences of Clive and others at DR Studios and there had been some concern that it would only be suitable for them, Clive explained that this shouldn’t be the case. The course was created in conjunction with other studios and, as Clive says, they ‘threw away the university syllabus’ and thought ‘what do we and other studios around the country need?’

One of the main things that they got rid of was a ‘history of gaming’ section, which is part of many university game courses. Clive felt that if someone signs up for a gaming course and doesn’t know about Pong and Space Invaders, then they should probably think about why they wanted to do the course in the first place.

With this in place, Clive and his colleagues still had to overcome the fact that each studio does different things and uses different tools. DR Studios, he says, tends to work on social simulation projects, but other studios such as Rebellion in Oxford do more action-orientated games.

Making it applicable

In order to create a course that was not just applicable to them, they spoke to the industry body TIGA with the idea that with their help they could put together an advisory body made up of not just industry people, but also universities.

‘The reason we have universities on there as well is that we all accept that we’re industry-orientated, but also that we’re not teachers. We had academia working with us to make sure we were teaching in a gated, scaled and scaffolded method. And so the games development team that TIGA pulled together for us looks at the course content in terms of ‘does this fit with the UK games industry development needs?’ The academics that we have working with us make sure all of the content that we’re writing is written in such a way that it is structured, learnable and teachable.’

TIGA’s role is to manage the quality path through the advisory board, and the exam advisory board manages the course overall in terms of quality and difficulty and the relevance of each of the qualifying exams, of which there are three - one at the end of each of the modules. TIGA also checks that the tutor-marked assessment content is of a sufficient quality.

Fast-paced industry

The big issue with universities teaching anything that is as fast moving as the games industry is making sure that the course content is up-to-date. At university the problem is often that, once the course has started, changes can’t be made until it has been through its full teaching cycle.

Train2Game has been going 18 months and, according to Clive, they are on version five of the course already and have added Unity and Unreal development kits as part of the teaching process and also project management techniques like Agile and Scrum.

 The course is benchmarked against the Skillset Occupational Standards and the Games Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS) points system and is currently of Higher National Diploma standard. It was marked down from being of degree standard because it is a distance learning scheme and does not include face-to-face lecturing and team work. Clive says they have now added the latter and hope to be reclassified.

To get an idea of how much time people would spend on the course, Clive says that they looked at Open University statistics. These show that people tend to spend between 10 and 12 hours a week studying. However, some of the current students are managing to fit in as many as 20 to 30 hours a week, which means that they will complete the course in around 18-20 months rather than three years.

One reason for this, Clive explains, is that many of the people taking the course are those who are looking to re-skill and change career. They are invariably older than most graduates, but also have a commercial understanding and know the needs of the industry.

Peer opinion

So what do other studios think about their courses? Clive says that there are between 30 and 40 studios that know what they are doing and love it. The others, he says, fall into one of two camps: there are the open-minded ones who are waiting to see what the course can deliver and then there are others who say that university is the only way to get the right qualifications.

There have been a few complaints and discussions about the course, or more specifically about the MIS, the company who owns Train2Game, on the internet, but Clive thinks that the many of the posts have been unjustified.

‘This happens sometimes when people post to forums, especially from such a vocal community,’ he explains. ‘Those that had questioned the courses simply did not understand the concept of Train2Game and blended learning.

To put this into perspective, the negative comments we have received are minute in comparison to the positive feedback received from our students - we address any comments on an ongoing basis to set the record straight and to ensure availability of correct course information. We have over 2,000 students studying with us - they are just as vocal in terms of their positive comments about the course.’